Jazz Great Christian McBride on the Place Where Fighting and Music Meet - Part 2
Fightland: When you’re playing at a level where you’re experiencing around where the maximum may lie, is there any resonance between that experience and that of boxing?
Christian McBride: I don’t know what the equal would be in combat sports because, the thing is, when you’re in the zone, as a musician, that could possibly last for quite some time. It could last for one song. It could last for an entire 90-minute set. Or three to four minutes of an incredible solo. Now, I would think that if you’re a fighter and you kind of get to that zone where you’re dominating, I would think that at some point the ref would stop the fight. Because once you get into that zone, as a fighter, my guess is that you’re connecting on everything you throw and you’re not getting hit. And if that’s really the case, then they’re going to have to stop the fight.
Learning an instrument or a combat sport is a humbling experience. It’s an all-encompassing democratizer. Regardless of your race, gender, socio-economic class, or any other part of your human experience--you can either play or you can’t. You can either fight or you can’t. You can’t bullshit your playing on stage. You can’t bullshit your fighting in a ring. You either practiced or you didn’t. It ties into discipline, as we’ve discussed, and it’s humbling.
There’s no question, particularly in sports, because boxing is the ultimate competitive sport in the sense that its “mono a mono.” You either win or you don’t, as opposed to music.
This is one issue I’ve had with music critics and music intellectuals. For example, you can’t watch Ali and George Foreman and say, “Well, Ali didn’t really win the fight.” You can say that fight might have affected Ali’s long-term health. But that particular fight that night in Zaire--Ali won that fight and won it brilliantly.
Now, what I don’t like about music critics, especially in jazz--it seems to happen in jazz more often than not – you hear a guy who is undeniably a master of his craft--say someone like Sonny Rollins. He’s an obvious master. If you don’t know anything about music and you hear Sonny Rollins, you’d say, “Hey, that guy can play.” Or George Benson or Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea, you’d say, “Hey, that guy can play.”
But what I find some times in jazz is that you’ll find somebody can get up there and frankly, because I know my training as a musician, I know they’re completely bullshitting. And there’s always some critic who says, “Oh, he’s not bullshitting. He’s just expressing himself in a different kind of way.” And I’ll go, “That’s bullshit!” and now they’re creating a space for this person to garner an audience of confused people who don’t really know the difference: “Some critic said this guy can play. I don’t think he sounds as good as Sonny Rollins but someone said he’s a genius so I better pay attention to him.” Meanwhile, guys who are obviously greater at what they do--it’s almost as if people think anyone can do that. Now this sort of abstract, strange playing that no one can understand, some people now think that’s what they need to get with. Ahh, man.
Now, you brought up Jackson Pollock earlier. The first Jackson Pollock I ever saw was “White Light,” the one on the cover of the Ornette Coleman album [Free Jazz]. Once you really start looking at that piece up close and you see all the detail, you realize this cat’s not bullshitting at all. This cat’s serious.
I know a lot of musicians who are abstract but when you get inside and look at the details, it’s still bullshit [laughs]. And they got a following. Pisses me off.
Have you ever talked about boxing, prizefighting, with other musicians?
Oh yeah. Wallace Roney is a huge boxing fan. Monty Alexander is a huge boxing fan. Um, who are some other musicians I know who love boxing? Archie Moore – rest his soul--he used to be a huge jazz fan. He was tight with all those old-school guys like Sonny Rollins.
Wait, Sonny Rollins was friends with Archie Moore?!
Oh yeah. He [Moore] used to come out all the time in L.A. and see live music, when I first started going out there in the early ‘90s.
When you spoke to fellow musicians about boxing, if you don’t mind me asking, what did you guys talk about?
We would mostly talk about the fighters themselves, their place in history, how they fought. Wallace and I are both from Philly and Philly is a boxing capital. “The Blue Horizon,” which was Philly’s home for boxing, everybody fought there. Ike Williams, Dick Tiger, George Benton, Joe Frazier’s Gym was right up the street, and it was such a great place to watch boxing. And so Wallace and I would always bond on the whole Philly thing. When I was a teenager, guys like Meldrick Taylor and Tyrell Biggs. Mike Tyson beat him in ’87, I believe it was. Tyrell Biggs won an Olympic medal in ‘84. So, everyone in Philly thought he was gonna be the cat. Then Tyson came out of nowhere ‘round ’85 and I remember the whole city of Philadelphia was like, “Well if Tyrell Biggs can get by Tyson we’re home free.” Such a great tradition of boxing in Philly.
Now, Monty, he grew up in Jamaica but he spent a lot of time in Miami in his early career so he used to hang out at the 5th Street Gym all the time, where Ali used to train. He knew all those guys. He knew Angelo Dundee, Bundini Brown. He went to go see Ali at Madison Square Garden. Ali had his first fight in New York after he came out of his exile, when he fought Oscar Bonavena. He said he went to the fight with Sam Jones [jazz double bassist, cellist, and composer]. I mean Monty’s got some serious, serious stories about boxers.
If you could have one fighter ask you to write their walkout song, who would it be? Is there is a fighter whose ethos you feel you could capture and represent with your music?
Well it’s funny because both Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, as seemingly disparate as their concepts were socially and in their approaches towards boxing … it would have to be a double-sweep for Louis and Ali. I think both were so great in their era for what they did. I actually would probably be able to write walkout songs for the both of them. I would try to write something as sophisticated and dignified as Joe Louis was--kinda something in the Ellington tradition.
And what I’m working on right now is my new piece, “Movement Revisited,” and part of the piece is a tribute to Ali. It’s my first large-scale “jazz opus,” so to speak. I picked four people from the Civil Rights Movement. I know when you talk about the Civil Rights Movement there’s a lot of people you could pick. But I chose Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Now, there have been many times where I’ve performed this piece and the question always comes up, “Well, why Ali? He wasn’t really a Civil Rights leader,” so to speak. This piece is not about the Civil Rights Movement. These are people who meant something personal to me from that particular era, which is kinda known as the Civil Rights Era--late ‘50s all throughout the 1960s. Now, for what Ali did for anti-Vietnam people, what he did for their morale and for an entire generation by not going into the army--I think that’s one of the most significant things anyone ever did from that era. And the ripple effect of his stance, that meant something to me, so that’s why I chose to put him in their company.
Check out part 1.
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